WASHINGTON – The government should borrow a page from the playbook of the private sector to improve its response to emergencies, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff (search) said Friday.
"We ought to be able to do what, you know, UPS does, or DHL, or Fed-Ex or any other airfreight agency," he said, "in order to make sure we get things to people who need them quick."
Speaking to a national fire chiefs' leadership summit, Chertoff acknowledged the problems his agency faced in responding last summer to a series of devastating hurricanes. It was particularly criticized for its role in Hurricane Katrina (search), in which federal aid was slow to arrive in flooded New Orleans.
He said the Federal Emergency Management Agency, a part of his department, is consulting with both government and private experts to determine how to "manage the flow of people and supplies that our first responders have a right to expect."
Calling FEMA a 20th century organization, Chertoff said, "We need to be able to get information out to people and be interactive with them in a 21st century way."
Chertoff said his agency has looked for new solutions to communications difficulties, such as aircraft carrying equipment to amplify weak signals.
"Although we have done a fair bit to prepare ourselves, we're not where we need to be," he said. "If there's an offseason for emergency management, we ought to use that."
He also said his department had already incorporated some lessons learned from the "one-two punch" of the hurricane and the flooding in New Orleans.
During Hurricane Katrina, wireless towers were down, landlines were not available and satellite phones ran out of power, Chertoff said. Before Hurricanes Rita and Wilma hit, the agency was able to preposition additional satellite phones and emergency power packs that it got from the military.
"Even the satellite phones are not perfect," Chertoff said. "Sometimes they don't work as well as they should."